Based on classic short stories by Shuuhei Fujisawa, multiple-award winning film Twilight Samurai tells of a 50-koku samurai (about as poor as a samurai can get & not be a masterless wanderer) called Sir Twilight because he always returns home at the end of each workday to be with his two young daughters, & does not participate in castletown escapades.
His wife having died, his mother is senile, & there has been no one to care for the family but himself. Without a wife there has been no one repairing his clothes or helping him dress his hair properly, & he lacks money for the public bath, so he looks & smells like a bum. He has many reasons for gloominess, but his real unhappiness stems from his duties as a samurai. He would be a fulfilled man if he could be a farmer & care only for his family.
Yet he is a good swordsman, & in the only two swordplay scenes, very impressive. In the first duel he uses a handcarved bokken or wooden sword so as not to kill his boastful opponent, & for another reason we discover later in the tale, & because he disarmed his opponent readily, it becomes known throoughout the castletown that Sir Twilight's skill is vastly more impressive than his grooming habits.
In the long, horrific, drawn-out swordfight, he & his opponent wound each other through the rooms of a dark house, seeing who is first to bleed to death slowly from numerous shallow cuts. The unromantic realism of this climactic battle is heartstopping suspense, though even the swordfight is frought with human emotion & the sadness of inescapable duty that is attendant to the class of samurai.
The heart of the film is the character of Seibei who is only fullfilled in the presence of his family. He is a good man in a failing system during the dying days of samurai culture. The character is played to perfection by Hiroyuki Sanada who began his acting career as Shinichi "Sonny" Chiba's protege of the late 1970s "Japan Action Club," when Sanada was more of a teen heartthrob than a serious actor.
But Sanada matured into one of Japan's finest character actors, inheriting the position of Tatsuya Nakadai & Toshiro Mifune, as is well proven by The Twilight Samurai, his best starring role to date, gaining him the Kinema Jumpo award for best actor, Japan's equivalent of the Oscar. Western filmgoers who only see Hollywood films will have seen him in an important supporting role as Ujio, the samurai who most dislikes Tom Cruise's character in The Last Samurai (2003), & Londoners will know him as the first Japanese member of the British Royal Shakespeare Company.
In the DVD interview Hiroyuki Sanada shyly, sweetly, simply states, "I love Seibei," for this is a human, humane story, & one of the most beautiful & intimate films of any kind I've ever seen. As a samurai film per se, very likely the best & most realistic since Kurosawa.
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